Gather Ye Rosebuds While Ye May: Tips for Collecting and Organizing Ideas, Part 2 – Generating Ideas
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While coming up with ideas might be easy, coming up with good ones is a bit harder. You increase your odds, of course, by coming up with lots and lots of ideas — out of a hundred or so, surely there ought to be one or two you can do something with!
Brainstorming is an effective way of coming up with tons of ideas. The idea is simple: just sit down, clear your head, and start writing down anything that comes to mind. Let your mind wander, and your pencil follow.
Of course, you don’t need fancy technology to brainstorm effectively — a pen or pencil and a piece of paper will do — but if you work at the computer a lot, it might be suitable to brainstorm in the same medium you write in. For simple brainstorming, an open word processor document will do.
Brainstorming, though, is rarely so simple. Many people find that a bit of structure is helpful — limitations often spark the greatest creativity, after all. Here are a few kinds of brainstorming exercises, some that can benefit from technological tools and some that can’t, that might be useful.
Jurgen Wolff told me about this on Lifehack Live. The idea is, write down a list of random words or phrases — maybe the first word on the first 10 pages of a book, or random words found flipping through a dictionary, or ten things on your desk, or whatever. Then force yourself to come up with one idea for each of them. Say you’re a fantasy writer, and somehow you’ve come up with “orange, computer, pen…” (for illustration purposes, I’ll just use three words).
- Orange: Yurok the Viking is surprised to discover an orange amid the frozen wastelands of the North.
- Computer: What would a computer look like in a fantasy setting? What would it do? Phineas the Magician sets out to create a magical machine to track the stars.
- Pen: A magical pen that, when used, creates the reality that’s written.
Are those great ideas? Maybe not — but they’re ideas. As you come up with more and more, you start to surprise yourself — your brain loosens up and starts really speculating. Which is great if you’re a speculative fiction writer, right?
Mind-mapping is a visual brainstorming technique in which a central theme is written in the middle of a page and random associations are “branched” off in connected circles. Check out Tony Buzan’s mind-mapping page for examples of how you can work with mind-maps and what you can do with them. Because mind-mapping is spatial instead of linear, they are supposed to allow your brain’s more creative side more free rein.
Although many mind-mappers find the physicality of pen or pencil on paper inspiring, others are just as comfortable working on a keyboard. What you may give up in physical intimacy with your medium is, for many, more than compensated for by the ability to easily save, search, and share their mind-maps. There are dozens of tools, some desktop-based and some accessed via the web, to make creating and storing digital mind-maps a breeze. Some free programs and services include:
- FreeMind: FreeMind is a free, open-source program for your Mac, Linux, or Windows PC (you do need Java installed, however). Its powerful mind-mapping engine is quite simple to work with, and while the mind-maps you create with FreeMind won’t necessarily be the most beautiful in the world, they are functional.
- bubbl.us: bubbl.us is a free service that allows you to create very slick, attractive mind-maps online. You can work by yourself, or easily collaborate with others using the simple sharing features. The whole system is very visual — ideas can be color-coded, bubbles can be dragged around the screen, and emerging connections between ideas can be drawn in.
- Mindomo: Like bubbl.us, Mindomo is a web-based service, but geared somewhat more towards a professional audience — its mind-maps are less artsy and “chunky” than bubbl.us’. They are also much more flexible, with an interface that looks very much like Word 2007’s Ribbon Bar allowing you the ability to fine-tune shapes, fonts, colors, and much else.
A writing prompt is an assignment, something you’re given to write about. “Write a 200-word essay on ‘What I did this summer’.” Some writers use these as warm-up exercises, to get into the rhythm of writing; others try to create original works around prompts.
There are several sources of free writing prompts online — some are just lists of topics, some post a new one every week, some will let you sign up to have one delivered by email at regular intervals (daily, weekly, etc.). Here’s a few:
- Language is a virus: Random prompt generator. Sample:Write as you think, as close as you can come to this, that is, put pen to paper and don’t stop. Experiment writing fast and writing slow.
- Prompt Generator: Another random prompt generator. Sample: “A home in the community has burned. Tell how you would help the family recover from the loss.”
- Creative Writing Prompts: Over three hundred prompts; mouse over them to see the prompt pop up. Sample: Write about a good thing gone bad.
- Writer’s Digest: A new prompt is on their homepage every week. This is the archive of past prompts. Sample:Babies typically talk in babbles that adults can’t understand. But one day, while at the park, you’re sitting on a bench next to two babies. They start their babbling, when all of a sudden you realize you can understand them. Even more, they are plotting a nefarious plan. Write this scene.
- Can Teach: A long list of questions to answer. Sample: What is a good neighbor?
Don’t be put off by the fact that some of these are intended for schoolchildren. The idea is to get some random thought to spark your imagination. And they can be equally as profound as the ones for professional writers — after all, Robert Frost wrote a not-too-shabby poem on the topic of “What is a good neighbor?”
Created by artsy musician Brian Eno, Oblique Strategies is a set of cards. When you’re stuck, you pick one and do whatever it says.
Several online versions of Oblique Strategies exist, such as David Ray’s Oblique Strategies webpage. Click “Random Card” and something random comes up, like “Mechanicalize something idiosyncratic”. What does it mean? I don’t know — maybe your trusty hero has a machine that allows his mother’s voice to whisper in his ear? Maybe there’s a mechanic that fixes broken hearts — or breaks healed ones? It’s oblique, that’s the point!